Sunday, March 17, 2013

Burzum - Umskiptar (2012)

Released in May 2012, Umskiptar is the ninth full-length album from Burzum. This record is somewhat unique within the discography of Varg Vikernes, and it is something that may take a little time for some to fully digest. Surely, this has very little connection to the realm of Black Metal that initially gave birth to this musical project. With that said, there is a clear line of evolution from the old to the new, as Umskiptar picks up from where Fallen left off and continues to develop further away from the old sound. All the while, the everything contained on this album is unquestionably identifiable as Burzum.

This album has been described by its creator as "Skaldic Metal", and the lyrics were taken from the Völuspá. Due to the nature of the lyrical content, it would be easy to assume that this represents sort of a loss of the personal touch that previously existed, but of course that discounts that it was still Varg who chose what elements of this poem to focus on. Musically, what we have here is a rather stripped-down record of down-tempo pieces that imbue the listener with feelings of sorrow and loss. There has always been a melancholic element found on Burzum albums and Umskiptar is no exception, though the approach is rather different. Though there are a handful of fast-picked riffs, that actual tempo as dictated by the percussion goes from mid-paced to a doom-like crawl. "Jóln" is probably the most active and dynamic track on here, despite being rather subdued by most standards. There is nothing in the vein of "Feeble Screams from Forests Unknown", "Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn" or even "Keliohesten" on this record. In fact, as the album goes along, it seems to get slower and slower, with the guitar playing a less prominent role and fading into the background. The trio of "Alfadanz", "Hit helga Tré" and "Æra" represents the strongest and most conventional segment of the album and are comprised of moody and sombre guitar melodies that would not have been out of place on the last couple of releases. "Hit helga Tré", in particular, is built on primitive riffs with strong doom tendencies, featuring a haunting tremolo melody that flows throughout as Varg's almost corpse-like voice is infiltrated by moments of humanity. This may be the most memorable song on here. The experimentation continues, as later songs feature no harsh vocals at all, for the first time ever. Some of these are hit-and-miss. The vocals, especially, seem somewhat disconnected from the music. At some points, it feels like the music is just background noise for some spoken-word pieces."Heiðr" is a good example of this. That is not to say that all of the clean vocals are done in this manner. "Galgviðr" actually utilizes clean singing, not just speaking, throughout its entirety. Still, there are moments when one may wish for one of the trademark instrumental tracks from Burzum's past. "Surtr Sunnan", for one, sounds very reminiscent of the older material and would have been more enjoyable without any lyrics. Regardless of whatever complaints I may have with some elements of the album, everything still flows together very well and Umskiptar is rather cohesive and solid. The whole thing comes together, very well, in dragging the listener into another world. By the time "Gullaldr" arrives, you get the feeling that the life is slowly draining out of you. Unlike in the past, there is hardly any sense of suffering or anguish here. It almost puts you in a dreamlike state and the main feeling is one of relief, as the cold winds of death carry you away.

The production suits the music. Nothing about this sounds modern, really. The guitar is rather dominant in the mix, at least during the tracks that really highlight it as the most important instrument. Later in the album, it seems to fade a bit, though this is likely due to the nature of the compositions. Everything is rather clear, allowing for the various melodies to stand out and to be easily recognizable. The sound is certainly cleaner that even the previous album, which was not all that harsh by any stretch. One complaint would be that the vocals are a little too clear, at times, as even the moisture on Varg's tongue can be heard. This is quite distracting.

Umskiptar is certainly a unique album and it is one that many, myself included, may not immediately be able to wrap their head around. That would seem to directly contradict the claims of some that Varg only resurrected Burzum to cash in on its name value (if so, why would he stray from the tried and true formula of past albums to experiment so much, if not for artistic purposes?). For those that are interested in music on a deeper level, rather than seeking only instant gratification, this is surely worth the time to explore. Whether you want to consider this some sort of Black, Folk or Skaldic Metal (or something outside of Metal, completely), one cannot argue that this is very genuine and atmospheric music that speaks to something inside of us in a way that words often fail to do. Though I would say "Hit helga Tré" and "Gullaldr" are the best songs on here, it is best for you to just immerse yourself into the whole album and see where it takes you.